For a mother to teach her son to drive is perhaps not so unusual, but for her to teach him to fly? Given that the year was 1911, that was most likely a first. But Hilda B. Hewlett had already achieved a first in the world of aviation. Three months earlier she had become the first English woman to gain a pilot’s licence.
How was it that the middle-aged wife of a well-known author came to be counted among the early aviation pioneers? A daughter of the vicar of an impoverished parish in South London, Hilda Beatrice Herbert was born in 1864 and married Maurice Hewlett, a barrister in Antiquarian Law, in 1888. He aspired to be a writer and Billy, as Hilda was affectionately known, encouraged him.
When, ten years later, he published his best seller, a romantic historical novel, The Forest Lovers, the Hewletts began to enjoy unimaginable prosperity and Maurice was on his way to becoming a full-time writer and a member of the literary London scene. Billy, meanwhile, was acquiring a reputation for unconventionality.
She already drove and maintained her own car, but it was whilst watching a new-fangled contraption of an aircraft rise and fly above a muddy field that Billy was fired with an all-consuming desire. To own and fly just such a machine she was prepared to endure cold and hunger, boredom and poverty. It was a venture that was to take her into aircraft manufacture throughout WWI and to settle her, eventually, as Old Bird – her grandchildren only ever knew her as Old Bird – in New Zealand.